Thwarted belongingness and perceived burdensomeness

Interpersonal theory of suicidal behaviour

Interpersonal psychological theory of suicidal behaviour by Thomas Joiner (2005) assumes that an individual dies by suicide when they desire to and when they have the capability to carry out suicide.

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Development of a desire for death due to suicide

The desire for death develops when the following two psychological states are present at the same time and for long enough in the mind of a person:

  • A feeling that we are a burden to others – family, friends, and society. This creates the idea that an individual’s death is more useful than their life to their family, friends, and society. This feeling is associated with suicidal ideation.
  • A sense that we don’t belong in interpersonal relationships (thwarted belongingness) – with family members, friends, and significant others. The relationship between the degree of belongingness or alienation and suicidality is particularly significant for adolescents, students, the elderly, and people with mental health problems.

These feelings don’t arise in a moment, rather develop through a process of distancing oneself from others and experiencing situations which strengthen the belief that others don’t need you and that you are useless or even a burden.

The distress from these experiences makes one think that it would be better for others if they weren’t here.

Both dimensions of experiencing ourselves in relation to others can be recognized and monitored early enough. Unfortunately, the alienation is often happening on a very subtle level and the individual notices it late in the process or perceives it as a part of normal changes in relationships.

Capability for suicide

The perceived feelings of becoming a burden (perceived burdensomeness) and alienation (thwarted belongingness) are the key factors in development of a desire for suicide. However, the desire for suicide alone does not lead to a suicide attempt. Another element must be present, namely the capability of fatally harming oneself.

The capability for suicide is understood as an acquired trait.

Due to the frequent reoccurrence of painful and difficult life experiences, the fear of pain, injury, or death eventually decreases.

These experiences are frequently self-inflicted wounds, different injuries or indirect exposure to the injuries and pain of others.

Special attention should be paid to individuals that experience trauma, physical injury, or pain throughout the course of their normal work day within their occupation. They are often subjected to the stereotype that they have become accustomed to these events, that these events can no longer hurt them, and are part of the job. However, it is these people who often develop the capability for suicide. Soldiers and medical doctors are two examples of these high risk professions.

Self-preservation is a powerful instinct but the ability to resist it by determination and willpower is increased among people experiencing trauma, injury, and pain.

The importance of the interpersonal theory for suicide prevention

According to the interpersonal theory, the desire to die by suicide does not necessarily mean that the person will attempt suicide. However, such a desire can have a direct impact on an individual’s mental and physical health, interpersonal relationships, creativity, self-care, ability to work, etc.

The interpersonal theory points to the key driving forces behind suicidal behaviour, of which we should be aware of in clinical and public health interventions.

Mental health professionals should pay attention to the presence of the interpersonal alienation of their clients, to the belief that they perceive themselves as a burden in their environment, and to the presence of acquired capability for suicide (especially by previous suicide attempts). This information might be helpful in assessing suicide risk and in guiding therapy.

Furthermore, it is important to pay attention to what is happening to our loved ones in our everyday lives.

It is important to talk about any changes.

Are you in distress?
If you are in distress seek help immediately.

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